Eva Vitija has written many feature film scripts for cinema and television, including “Meier,” “Marilyn,” “Madly in Love,” and “Sommervögel.” “Das Leben Drehen” marked her feature-length documentary debut. It was nominated for the Swiss Film prize for best documentary and for an award from the International Documentary Association, Los Angeles. The film won various prizes, including the Prix de Soleure, the Basel Film Prize, and the Zurich Film Prize.
“Loving Highsmith” opens September 2 in New York and September 9 in LA before expanding nationwide in limited release.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
EV: The film is a kind of love biography of the famous thriller writer Patricia Highsmith. It explores the question of what influence love had on the author’s work. We met some of her former girlfriends and her family in Texas, who for the first time speak publicly about their time with Highsmith. But also the author herself has her say with touching quotes from her personal writings, the diaries and notebooks she kept throughout her life, congenially read by the great actress Gwendoline Christie, whom everybody knows from “Game of Thrones” and “Top of the Lake.” In addition, Highsmith is featured in many exciting archive materials.
Her work is represented by the most famous film adaptations of her novels, such as “Carol” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
W&H: What drew you to this story?
EV: When I first started deciphering Highsmith’s diaries and notebooks — there are 8,000 pages, unpublished material at the time — I was completely surprised by the personality that spoke from these very unfiltered notes. Highsmith has a rather somber image, which fits very well with the psychological crime novels she is known for. But from these personal texts I was struck by a young aspiring author who was constantly falling in love, sky-high enthusiastic about other women. Love stories that often ended in disappointment. And stories where, as she grew older, it became increasingly unclear how much of it actually took place in reality or only in her imagination.
This young Highsmith even had a very romantic and poetic streak, which surprised me totally. She was sympathetic to me, and the personality that revealed so little of herself in public throughout her life struck a chord with me. First, I just wanted to find out why this public persona of Highsmith was so different from the person I found in these private texts.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
EV: I want to offer people the opportunity to get to know Highsmith all over again: what drove her? What was important to her? What feelings, thoughts, and perhaps also disappointments did she experience? With this film, I would like to make people curious about the work that this great author has created, so that they can perhaps read and understand the books or their film adaptations with different eyes than they have before.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
EV: It was sometimes not easy at all to find Highsmith’s former girlfriends. First of all, this generation is sometimes not to be found on the Internet at all, so you have to find other ways to track them down — like a detective. On the other hand, I didn’t even know the names of all the women, and since some of them weren’t outed, no one wanted to tell me their names. One woman I searched for so long that I only found her when she had just passed away. I missed her. Then it was sometimes not so easy to convince them to be in a film and to talk openly about their love life, which they had to keep secret from their family and the public all their lives.
It was a great gift that Marijane Meaker in the United States, Monique Buffet in France, and Tabea Blumenschein in Germany, three of Highsmith’s loved ones, took part in the film.
Highsmith’s family in Texas was also very generous to me, simply opening up their home, their photo albums, and their memories of their Aunt Patricia to me for the film.
W&H: How did you get your film funded?
EV: The film is a majority-Swiss and minority-German co-production by Ensemble Film in Zurich and Lichtblick Film in Cologne. We received mainly public film funding in Switzerland from various agencies, including the federal government and the canton of Zurich and Sankt Gallen, and in Germany from the Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen. It was a co-production with various television stations: Swiss television SRG, Ticino television RSI, and German television ZDF and ARTE. In addition, various foundations and Media Eurimages have supported the film.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
EV: I first started writing screenplays. Before I went into studying screenwriting in Berlin, I had written a few short films. Later on, I wrote many screenplays for television and fictional cinema. When I directed my first feature documentary, I just couldn’t let anybody else do the directing because it was a film about my father and how he was constantly filming my childhood and our family life.
I am pretty sure I was opposed to the idea to become a director from the beginning because my father filmed our family life constantly and was a film director as well. I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps, but in the end I think I was influenced a lot by the fact that my father was also a director. Actors were always coming and going in our house — my father was originally an actor — and of course my parents watched movies with enthusiasm. But I think he always admired writers more than filmmakers. And I wanted to become an author first as well, and I did.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
EV: The best advice was probably the simplest: just listen to your intuition and take it seriously in the course of filmmaking. Of course, sometimes feelings get crazy, and intuitions may not come true. But it’s amazing how much you notice before you can even name it. That’s the best compass through the long process of making a film.
It’s not necessarily the worst advice, but it’s one I wouldn’t give to young writers myself. As a writer, they first teach you to write biographies of your characters. I find that quite useless, because in film you don’t have time to include more than two or three character traits of a person. Of course, those few have to be coherent and interesting.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
EV: I would advise other female filmmakers to get good allies for a film project. A team that stands by you. A producer who stands behind you. You will still encounter enough obstacles along the way that will try to dissuade you from your vision.
And I would advise other female filmmakers to be very clear. To say no sometimes when it’s necessary.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
EV: There are a lot of great films by female filmmakers. If I had to pick out one that really impressed me when I was young, it was “Vagabond” (“Sans Toit ni Loi”) by Agnès Varda. [The protagonist,] this young woman, who simply takes the freedom to live the way she wants and thus influences a lot of people, impressed me very much as a teenager, even though the film actually has a tragic ending for the young woman.
In the film “The Piano” by Jane Campion, I find the connection of a romantic love and the self-discovery of the main character incredibly successful. It is an insanely impressively made film with its wonderful images, actors, and music.
W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?
EV: As a documentary filmmaker, I see myself as responsible for posing questions to society by investigating and delving into topics — they don’t always have to be current ones — for which one might not otherwise always take the time. In documentary film there is of course always the claim to inform and to show things to which we otherwise have no access. It also means creating understanding for positions that are perhaps not our own and thus questioning the values of the majority.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?
EV: For me, one of the most important goals of my work has always been to try to break down stereotypes. Stereotypes hurt us because the people who are confronted with them try to fight against them all their lives and never get rid of the prejudices, even, for example, when it simply comes to finding a job or an apartment. My goal is to write stories that don’t repeat stereotypes. I think it’s very important that everyone in society is also represented in the film as a doer, because they themselves know best how different and far away they are from the social stereotypes.